Continuing Juvenile Reforms F

SARA ENGRAM

March 15, 1992|By SARA ENGRAM | SARA ENGRAM,Sara Engram is editorial page director of The Evening Sun. She begins a maternity leave today, so her column will not appear regularly for the next few months.

In February 1988, Governor Schaefer held a press conference at the State House in Annapolis that featured an unusual trio of guests. Three teen-agers, young people many would term "juvenile delinquents," were there to make a special presentation to the governor.

Their gift was a lock sawed out of the door to the infamous "isolation unit" at the Montrose School, which in almost 70 years of operation as a state training school had earned a reputation as overcrowded and ineffective. The teen-agers had recently been released from Montrose, and the press conference featured the announcement that soon the school would be closed and its young inmates would be receiving services and supervision while living in their own communities.

These services, the experts said, would not only be more effective in terms of helping to reclaim young lives, but they could also be delivered at less cost to the state.

Four years later, Maryland has developed some impressive programs for young people in trouble with the law -- but far from enough. The biggest success story, according to most observers, is the Choice program, which serves the Cherry Hill and Patterson Park areas of Baltimore City and which has recently expanded into Prince George's County.

Choice makes use of the abundant energy of new college graduates to fill its caseworker positions. These caseworkers provide close supervision, along with tutoring and other services to their clients, boys and girls from nine to 17. "Close" supervision means anywhere from two to five check-ups each day -- sometimes more -- including a wake-up visit before school and an evening check enforcing a curfew agreed on by the young person and the family.

Choice's cost per day for each youth served is $16. (Compare that to the $20,000 or so it costs the state to incarcerate an adult for a year.)

Choice has another unusual feature -- its eagerness to be monitored for results. Mark K. Shriver, who directs the program, is disarmingly frank in his message to state officials and other funding sources: If our program works and saves the state money, then fund us, he tells them. If it doesn't, then cut us.

So far, Choice is passing all the tests, and Mr. Shriver's pragmatic approach probably has a lot to do with that success. Preliminary reports from an Abell Foundation study show that while involved in Choice, young people were arrested significantly less often than those in a comparison group, and for less serious offenses. The same was true during a six-month follow-up period.

Another program that has gotten good marks is the Fort Smallwood Marine Institute, which works with troubled adolescents, mostly boys. But the program has suffered recent cuts in state funds, on which it depended for 90 percent of its budget. It is surviving by using funds designated for capital improvements -- and hoping that the Department of Juvenile Services will eventually be able to restore its grants.

The closing of Montrose in the spring of 1988, and the simultaneous reduction of the number of youths incarcerated at the Charles Hickey School, reflected a remarkable burst of reform in Maryland's services to juveniles in trouble with the law.

The reforms, which also included a restructuring of juvenile services into a separate department reporting to the governor, roared into effect during the first Schaefer administration. But Governor Schaefer and Linda D'Amario Rossi, the energetic director who oversaw many of these changes, did not initiate them all.

Calls for reform had begun as early as 1967, when the federal government reviewed the state's juvenile services and found an "overuse of institutionalization." For the next two decades, the state would face increasing criticism of its high juvenile incarceration rate. Lawsuits, rising costs for maintaining the aging facilities and increasingly bad publicity about conditions at the schools added to pressures to close Montrose and to provide more community-based services.

Four years after that burst of reformist energy, the state's attention has turned to its woeful fiscal crisis. We're hearing a lot about retrenchment and cutting back. But when it comes to juvenile services -- especially the intensive, community-based programs we were promised -- we're not hearing enough about pushing ahead on cost-effective programs that work better than expensive institutions. Nor are we seeing much emphasis from the state on making sure that these programs really do deliver.

After all the cheering at that press conference four years ago, it would be a shame if the energy fizzled out, endangering the gains that were so long in coming to this state.

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